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Flavors: Holiday Celebrations at a Safe Distance

Marti Chef Jim.jpg
Stella Fong
To keep members safe and healthy, The Transition Network in Billings decided to gather with via ZOOM with a program entitled Holiday Tips and Tricks hosted by president Marti Miller and Executive Chef James Murray.

Celebrations and festivities for this 2020 season will be enjoyed from a distance. With the onset of the COVID Pandemic, we will not honoring the holidays as we have done in years past. Most gatherings are reduced in size and many are now connecting with each except perhaps through a screen on our computer or phone. Zoom, GoToMeeting, Google Meet and other communication tools are now in our arsenal. Business and meetings are being conducted afar so why can we not party and toast remotely using this technology.

The Transitions Network with Marti Miller and Chef James Murray

In Billings, The Transition Network (TTN) will not be gathering in person this year, so President Marti Miller decided to organize an event utilizing her background in the food business. TTN is made up of a community of professional women, 50 and forward, who are now seeking new connections, resources, and opportunities as they enter life changing situations.

Miller will be beginning a culinary series for the group with the inaugural program entitled: Tips and Tricks for the Holiday Season focusing on how to compose charcuterie platters that are more individualized, making for safer holiday celebration.

Over the years working in sales and marketing for food companies as Johnsonville Sausage and Best Foods, she connected with Chef James Murray. These days Chef Murray is the Executive Chef and national Channel Marketing and Innovation Manager for the National Pork Board. He supports pork producers through innovation, education, and promotional activities.

After planning what they wanted to present to the group, they made a commercial using ZOOM, a teaser to invite members to join. They downloaded the video to YouTube so members could get a preview on what to expect for the December program.

Members were invited to join individually or as small groups. A list of the charcuterie elements was sent out so members could have things on hand to follow Chef Murray’s lead.

The following list was emailed to TTN members:


General guidelines on quantities for charcuterie boards

As an Appetizer:

o 1/2 Ounce Meats/person
o 1/2 Ounce Cheeses/person
o 2-3 Types of Meats/Cheeses/person

As a Main Course:

o 2-3 Ounces Meats/person
o 1-3 Ounces Cheeses/person
o 4-5 Types of Meats/Cheeses/person

**You will serve less for passed/individual style service vs buffet style service

· Cured Meats (U.S. Produced: Salami, Prosciutto Americano, Speck, Mortadella, Lomo, Guanciale and Pancetta)
· Spreadable Meats (Nduja, Rillette)
· Pork Terrine
· Pork Rinds
· Lardo
· Nuts
· Dried Fruits
· Olives
· Fresh Fruit (Melon, Apples, Peaches, Pears and Plums)
· Honey
· Mustard (Dijon or Country Style)
· Spreads
· Dips
· Pickled Vegetables (Red Onion, Carrots, Pickles, Cornichons, Caper Berries)
· Assorted Cheeses
-Aged (Gouda, Sharp Cheddar, Gruyere)
-Soft and Creamy (Brie, Camembert, Burrata, Fresh Mozzarella)
-Crumbly (Goat and Feta)
-Firm (Parmigiano Reggiano, Manchego)
-Smoked (Provolone, Cheddar, Gouda)
-Blue (Gorgonzola, Stilton, Roquefort)
· Crudité (Fresh Vegetables)
· Bread (Crostini, Crackers, Pita)

Local sources for Charcuterie components:

· Albertsons
· Winco
· Costco
· World Market
· TJ Maxx – great for unique condiments
· Ranch House Meats
· City Vineyard
· The Chalet
· The Spiked Olive
· Liberty & Vine
· Yellowstone Olive Company
· LeFournil Bakery

For safely sharing the Charcuterie offering, Chef Murray said, “Anything you can build that is self-contained, that doesn’t necessarily have to be served in a buffet type of environment or communal feeding.” “I would also recommend that you give people their own utensils, give them tongs, or give them a fork that they can get the items individually.”

With leftovers the next day, Murray suggested cooking up a flatbread pizza, a baked egg dish or a frittata. Miller recommended pressed sandwiches such as paninis as a good way to use up any remaining food.

Ashley Neutgens Tasting.JPG
Stella Fong
To keep members safe and healthy, The Transition Network in Billings decided to gather with via ZOOM with a program entitled Holiday Tips and Tricks hosted by president Marti Miller and Executive Chef James Murray.

Sparkling Wine and Champagne Tasting with Ashley Neutgens at City Vineyard

Since the onset of the COVID Pandemic, I have participated or led virtual wine tastings. There are countless ways to do this. To keep it simple and manageable, ten people may be the most people you would invite especially if the session is interactive. If you are someone else is lecturing or leading the event, then the number of participants can be as big as your host communication app can handle.

The simplest is to open whatever bottle of wine you have in the house, pour it in a glass and drink it with your online group. You can talk about what you see, smell, taste and feel. The next level is to pick out some wines and each participant go out to the store to secure the wines. You can go through each wine together. Each person can take a turn describing what they experience.

General Manager, Ashley Neutgens, took me through a sparkling wine and champagne tasting. She shared information on sparkling wine versus champagne, vintage versus nonvintage champagne, sweetness levels and glass styles for optimizing sparkling wine enjoyment. We tasted three sparkling wines: Cune Cava Brut, Kuentz-Bas Crémant d’Alsace Brut and a Laurent-Perrier Brut Champagne.

Champagne is usually composed of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. A Blanc de blancs or “white from white” is made up of Chardonnay grapes only, while a Blanc de noirs meaning “white from black” is produced from Pinot Noir. Only sparkling wine from the Champagne region can take on the name champagne while other bubbly varieties can be designated as sparkling wines.

Champagne is produced in the technique called Méthode Champenoise where wine goes through a second fermentation inside the bottle. A sugar and yeast mixture is added to the bottle of wine to go through a second fermentation where fine bubbles are produced.

Other sparkling wines include Prosecco from Italy along with Lambrusco, Cava from Spain and Sekt from Germany. The sparkling wines can be produced using Méthode Champenoise or in a quicker manner with carbon dioxide forced into the wine.

Neutgens comments and responses to questions are as follows:

There is the traditional method of making champagne while other methods include forcing carbon dioxide into the wine itself.

Neutgens: “It’s a quicker easier process that doesn’t give you as much of an expensive product. What’s that going to do is also create larger bubbles and in your champagne too so the natural bubbles that come out of Méthode Champenoise are going to be super small delicate almost frothy and foamy whereas more nontraditional sparkling wine that has that C02 added to it is going to be larger bubbles so think like soda pop like it’s going to have those bursting bigger for mixing into a mimosa or just drinking for fun or if you just want to pop the cork, especially, this year, which a lot of people are anxious to do.”

What is the difference between vintage and nonvintage champagne?

Neutgens: “So vintage champagne is going to be a lot higher in price point than nonvintage champagne, and in nonvintage champagne, typically what these growers are doing is mixing vintages to produce one product. So sometimes one vintage might yield a fruit that is higher in acid. Sometimes a separate vintage might yield a fruit that is higher in fruit so when you blend together, it makes a beautiful wine that makes up for what the other vintages is lacking. Typically for vintage champagnes those are considered great champagnes or remarkable vintage years for those champagnes and they’ve had luxurious growing seasons and nothing in the wine is flawed so they can produce that vintage number of the year on that bottle.”

What are the different levels of sweetness from extra brut, brut, brut extra dry and demi sec?

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Stella Fong
Three glasses of sparkling wine poured into a flute, Sauvignon Blanc/Pinot Blanc glass and a Pinot Noir glass.

Neutgens: “Demi sec is going to have residual sugar let in there. The demi sec is perfect if you think that champagnes are too dry or too yeasty or bready. The demi sec will be perfect for you. It’s almost has a honeyed apricot note to it. It’s beautiful and perfect for dessert pairing or if you don’t like super dry wines, this wine will be approachable for you.

Brut extra dry … it’s kind of confusing but brut extra dry is more sweet than brut and then after that we’ve got extra brut. Extra brut is the driest. Brut is the middle range. Brut extra dry is actually going to be less dry than your regular brut.”

Does the shape of the glass influence the sparkling wine experience?

Neutgens: “So the glass definitely matters and I get asked that question probably more than any other question here at City Vineyard and bar probably why we have so many different wine glasses. The flute is really fantastic but a flute was actually invented not for the taste of the wine but it was invented to hold more glasses of champagne on a serving tray so that the reason why a flute looks the way it does. It’s beautiful to see all the bubbles come up but coups are really hard to serve multiples on a serving tray so that’s why the flute was invented. My favorite glass to actually have traditional champagne in is a Pinot noir glass since that’s the grape varietal that we are working with so anytime you have a sparkling wine think about that base varietal that’s coming out of that wine and consider that particular wine glass.”
In our tasting, Neutgens poured the Cava into a flute while the Crémant went into a Sauvignon blanc/Pinot blanc glass with the champagne in a Pinot noir glass. The flute sent bubbles streaming straight upwards in the glass while the Sauvignon blanc glass sprayed the bubbles into the glass like confetti. The flute highlighted the apple and citrus notes, but the glass provided more celebration than flavor. The Pinot Noir glass focused the main grape varietals characteristics and for Neutgens, this was her favorite glass for champagne. The champagne showed more delicate bubbles because of the refined way it was created. In the tulip bulb, the aromas built and were then focused up into the tapered rim of the glass. The second glass was chosen for our tasting because of the dominant grape varietal of Pinot blanc in the Crémant.

With Neutgens, we scratched the surface of all the topics we could have covered with our three glasses of sparkling wines. So be creative during this COVID Pandemic holiday season, the available communication tools will help us celebrate together safely at a distance.

Stella Fong shares her personal love of food and wine through her cooking classes and wine seminars as well as through her contributions to Yellowstone Valley Woman, and Last Best News and The Last Best Plates blogs. Her first book, Historic Restaurants of Billings hit the shelves in November of 2015 with Billings Food available in the summer of 2016. After receiving her Certified Wine Professional certification from the Culinary Institute of America with the assistance of a Robert Parker Scholarship for continuing studies, she has taught the Wine Studies programs for Montana State University Billings Wine and Food Festival since 2008. She has instructed on the West Coast for cooking schools such as Sur La Table, Williams-Sonoma, Macy’s Cellars, and Gelsons, and in Billings, at the Billings Depot, Copper Colander, Wellness Center, the YMCA and the YWCA. Locally she has collaborated with Raghavan Iyer and Christy Rost in teaching classes.